The death of the teaching profession

15th May 2009 at 01:00
Chris Woodhead: "Teachers are no longer in a profession"

State school staff are expected to be puppets for ministers' latest agendas - even if they are nonsense.

I don't understand. Why has there not been widespread rebellion? Riots in teacher training institutions? Expressions of disgust in staffrooms?

Teaching is a profession. By definition, professionals determine their own beliefs and practice. They don't twitch mindlessly as politicians pull the strings. But this is exactly what teachers in state schools are expected to do. How is it, I asked myself, as I wrote my new book, A Desolation of Learning, that we have surrendered so much professional independence so easily?

To become a teacher, you have to conform to the demands of the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), an organisation that now defines the standards to be achieved at various staging posts in a teacher's career. So we have "core", "post-threshold", "advanced skills teacher" and "excellent teacher" standards, all spelt out with bureaucratic exactitude and all highly significant for any teacher who wants to progress in his or her career.

These standards, moreover, reflect the agency's on-message priorities. This is an organisation that, to quote its corporate plan, has a "critical role in achieving the priorities of the Children's Plan", and that aims to "ensure that the key outcomes of the Every Child Matters (ECM) agenda are embedded" in all its work. In other words, an organisation that exists to ensure nobody can become a teacher, or be promoted as a teacher, if they do not dance to the Government's tune.

Then there is the National College for School Leadership (NCSL). This too is dedicated to promoting government policies. Its work, we are told, "will reflect the priorities of the Children's Plan". Why? New headteachers need to know what the Children's Plan says, but the aim of the college should be to encourage a critical professional engagement with the plan's priorities. This is not how Steve Mumby, the college's chief executive, sees his responsibilities. "Understanding of the 14-19 reform agenda is embedded," he writes, "in the NCSL core programme."

Should government policy be taken as an unquestionable given? Am I alone in finding the statement that the college "will work with the TDA . to identify and support those leaders who have yet to engage in the ECM and extended schools agenda" rather sinister? You may not want the college's support, but they know where you are - and you're going to get it.

Most secondary heads belong to the government-funded Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT). Every year it runs a major conference, which is now attended by some 1,500 heads. In 2008, the theme was Redesigning Schooling. Here are the titles of three of its sessions: `The Deeps in Action; The Co-construction Imperative; Improving Tomorrow's Leaders'; `Student Voice as a Strategy for Transformation'; and `Pedagogies of Contingency and Transformation'.

If, reading the above, you feel a degree of mystification, don't worry. I don't have the slightest idea what they mean either. To check that senility had not set in, I phoned half a dozen heads I respect to ask what they thought. There was in each case a long silence. One said he felt queasy; another asked whether the conference had been sponsored by a millennial sect.

In crucial respects, the SSAT is a millennial sect. It clearly thinks it has access to divine education wisdom and it brooks no disagreement. Delegates (or should I say disciples?) were immersed from dawn to dusk in the "personalisation agenda". Personally, I find this "agenda" deeply suspect. I know many other heads and teachers agree but, bombarded with propaganda and subjected to all sorts of pressures, they also know that to voice opposition is to threaten any chance of promotion.

Ofsted inspectors are, moreover, lurking about to check whether the curriculum has been "personalised". Every inspection report I have read in recent years makes reference to "personalisation" and "active" learning. Woe betide the school that thinks the teacher's job is to teach subject knowledge in a traditional way. As chief inspector, I fought hard to ensure inspection was an activity that held a mirror up to the school's performance. I did not think inspectors should drag the Government's beliefs into the classrooms they visited. When they do, inspection becomes an instrument of state control. That is what it is now.

So what of the new secondary curriculum and Sir Jim Rose's primary curriculum proposals? Where do these developments leave teachers who believe that subjects matter? In the professional wilderness is the answer.

The official line is that nobody needs to know much about specific subject knowledge. The subject has become a vehicle for teaching cross-curricular "skills" and "dimensions" which, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority tells us, provide "important unifying areas of learning that help young people make sense of the world and give education relevance and authenticity. They reflect the major ideas and challenges that face individuals and society." The alternative view is that it is subjects such as science, mathematics, history and literature that enable us to make sense of the world in which we live.

In my view, if relevance means that what is taught has to be immediately interesting to every child, then the only riposte is that education should not be relevant. Schools exist to teach knowledge that would not be encountered elsewhere, or, at best, encountered in a fragmented fashion. The more challenging and alien that knowledge, the more powerful the curriculum will be. Or, to put it a different way, the more immediate the "relevance", the greater the danger of "inauthenticity". An inauthentic curriculum is one that purports to achieve that which it cannot possibly deliver, which trades in meaningless feel-good phrases and exploits anxiety about the social concerns politicians have failed to resolve. This latest national curriculum is such a one.

You disagree? Fine, I am delighted. You are responding as a professional should. But where is the debate about these issues? We have all been programmed to believe the official line, or have learnt to keep quiet. Teaching is no longer a profession.

  • `A Desolation of Learning' is published next Friday by Pencil-Sharp Publishing.
    • Chris Woodhead, Chairman of private school company Cognita and former chief schools inspector.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today